Social media content harmful to public health, including misleading claims about hydroxychloroquine made by the Liberal MP Craig Kelly, should be taken down under new proposed codes of conduct, the media regulator has said.
The Australian Communications Media Authority chief executive, Creina Chapman, made the comments to the inquiry into the 2019 federal election on Wednesday while providing an update on Acma’s work to help social media companies develop voluntary codes on misinformation.
Earlier, Facebook’s Asia-Pacific vice-president, Simon Milner, pushed back against the codes by arguing the Australian government should regulate foreign interference and misinformation in election campaigns rather than leave it to industry self-regulation.
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Chapman told the joint standing committee on electoral matters Acma expected social media companies to develop “comprehensive” codes, including systems for users to complain and to publish data about how they deal with complaints. Acma released draft guidance in June and is expected to report back to government by June 2021.
Asked how a draft code would handle harmful claims about public health, such as false claims about hydroxychloroquine, Chapman said Acma had proposed a “graduated system of harm”.
“The most harmful material, for example material dealing with health, we would expect them to take down,” she said.
In their existing community guidelines, social media companies say they intend to remove material that is harmful in areas such as health, incitement to violence and public panic.
Kelly has claimed that hydroxychloroquine could be effective at treating Covid-19, despite the most authoritative trials concluding it is not, and even questioned whether Daniel Andrews could be criminally liable for blocking its use. The anti-malaria drug can cause heart rhythm problems, severely low blood pressure and muscle or nerve damage.
Asked specifically about Kelly’s posts, Chapman said that Acma currently did not have a remit to directly regulate the platforms and enforce their failure to take content down.
Asked if she believed such posts should be taken down, Chapman replied: “Yes – and I think anybody would. And the platforms indicate that they would do that.”
The Labor MP Milton Dick noted the platforms had failed to take Kelly’s posts down.
Last month the government blocked a Labor parliamentary motion taking Kelly to task for the posts, and Scott Morrison has declined to comment on the MP’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine.
Earlier questioning focused on campaign material falsely claiming Bill Shorten would introduce a death tax, which widely distributed on Facebook before the election.
Although Facebook said in October it had intervened in two cases of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, on Wednesday Milner revealed that Facebook and its external partners had fact-checked just 17 news articles during the campaign.
Milner said artificial intelligence was used to “apply the same treatment to similar posts” meaning that ultimately “thousands” of posts were removed.
Asked if Facebook fact-checked political advertising, Milner replied: “We have removed ads that could lead to real-world harm but in general we do not fact-check political advertising.
“That’s pretty consistent with regulation around the world. It’s generally accepted that media companies should not interfere with [political ads], because it is effectively interfering in a democratic process.”
Instead, it was important for political debate to “play out” with political opponents responding to claims made about them and media investigating claims, including using the Facebook ad library to monitor ads.
Milner said that in the US Facebook had decided to ban new political ads in the final week of the presidential campaign, over fears participants would have limited ability to respond, but did not commit to apply that rule to the next Australian federal election.
He said the change was “not universally welcomed” and Facebook would “much prefer the Australian policymakers to make these decisions about what’s right for Australia”.
Milner outlined Facebook’s efforts to counter misinformation and foreign interference, including removing 1.5bn fake accounts, banning material that suppressed votes or misrepresented the process of voting, and banning all foreign ads relating to Australian politics during the 2019 campaign.
“We’d like to see [the field] more thoroughly regulated, so it’s not a case of us as a tech company headquartered in the US making decisions” such as banning foreign ads about Australian politics, he said.
Milner also called for the blackout on election material in broadcast media to be extended to digital media, arguing it would “ensure parity” between platforms.
Witnesses were sceptical of a push for truth in political advertising spearheaded by progressive thinktank the Australia Institute despite the in-principle support of the Australian Capital Territory.
The psephologist Antony Green said it was not possible to “argue facts with promises”, that is, to determine if promises are factual.
“I’m not convinced truth in advertising laws really work,” he said, arguing that in South Australia, the only jurisdiction where such laws apply, findings related to often “trivial” subject matter.
The ABC’s editorial director, Craig McMurtrie, said that it might be possible to identify “outrageous falsehoods”, but it would be difficult to make a meaningful difference with more subjective claims.
“Calling out what is true and what is not – as an idea – everyone would support, but drawing up meaningful legislation is difficult.
“Do we agree there shouldn’t be fake news? Yes. Do we all have the same worldview about what is fake news? Certainly not.”